A friend was visiting from the States and on this sunny, frigidly-cold winter day most people would have preferred to stay indoors and keep warm. Not us. We hopped on a bus in Orvieto that dropped us in Bagnoregio, then hiked through town to the foot bridge that directs visitors up to the top of Civita’.
Civita’ di Bagnoregio (il paese che muore,“the dying town”) is located 145km north of Rome in the region of Lazio overlooking the Tiber Valley. It seems to me the village floats above the earth in a cloud, but has the unfortunate distinction of being one of the world’s most endangered places – the town is slowly crumbling and sliding down its cliffs.
This borgo has always had a strange allure for me (as it has, I’m sure, for millions of others who have experienced it). The atmosphere on that day was a little eerie because there didn’t appear to be any other souls in town (except two ambling cats in the main piazza). It’s a favorite stop for tours in the spring and summer, but on this February day the streets were quiet and deserted, underlining the heartbreaking reality of the city’s inevitability. I’ve visited Civita’ three times in my life. The first was in the most conventional way – as a tourist. The second was as a dinner guest at the home of a friend (which was pretty amazing considering there are only a dozen residents remaining in this little hamlet). My last visit was by far, however, the most memorable.
A small sign hanging in a courtyard is the only indication that there is a thriving business in a grotta (cave) at the end of the enchanting patio. Bruschetteria L’Antico Frantoio is too tiny to be characterized as a cafe’ and the menu selection is too limited to be defined as a restaurant – it’s simply called a “bruschetteria”. I imagine it’s like no other bruschetteria in Italy. The Rocchi family has operated this iconic destination of travelers for decades and the ancient, 1500 year-old olive oil mill (frantoio) in the back is an extraordinary “conversation piece”. Still functional though retired from commission, it has been in the family since 1520. Today the oil is produced on the family’s Agriturismo “Le Corone” in a valley nearby.
On this particular day Felice Rocchi was our host and chef. A remarkably efficient use of space, there is only a fireplace to grill the bread, a counter to assemble and serve the food and wine, and a few tables covered in crimson and white tablecloths. I think we were his only customers and I have to admit, we were in no hurry to return to the freezing wind, so the three of us passed a very pleasant afternoon talking, eating the most amazing olive oil-soaked bruschetta, and drinking fresh house red wine. We chatted about Felice’s family, got a private tour of the Etruscan well in the cantina, and together we even devised a kooky plan to assist Japanese tourists who often seemed bewildered by how and what to order. He promised us a cut of the projected profits from our little scheme. I’ve thought about it a lot and I have decided that, on my return, I will ask that my share be paid in bruschetta.